Q&A – informative for a change

Yesterday I had a lot going on and was not able to watch the Q&A live, so I watched it this morning. I kind of wish I had made some time to watch it yesterday, because for a change there was quite a lot of very good information in it, and if I had had a few more hours to think about it I would probably be able to make some more thoughtful comments about it today. As it is, here are some of my off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts on it. And you can check out both the full video and the text summary courtesy of MMO-C here.

Allied races. There was a lot of discussion about these. To me, it was all of passing interest, but I know there a lot of players for whom this is an extremely exciting part of the game. I think the bottom line here is that Blizz will be introducing lots of new allied races over the course of possibly years. Though Hazzikostas did not admit it, the major reason will be to entice players to level new characters (and thus possibly beef up MAU numbers over an extended period of time).

How best to communicate with Blizz. Basically, don’t whine and don’t try to pass your comments off as representing all players. Meh.

Class balance. I thought this was a decent discussion because it did yield some insight into Blizz’s current guiding principles for class design. Hazzikostas reiterated the idea that the goal is to “make each class unique”. (And by “class” I am pretty sure he meant “spec”.) I do not disagree with the goal, but he failed to address the related designs. For example, it is all well and good to make a class that excels in the ability to DoT targets, but if you design raids and dungeons that only make this a valuable trait for a couple of bosses, then the “unique” aspect of the class is not worth much. Blizz has thus far not shown much success in coordinating raid and dungeon design with class abilities, and every expansion they end up creating winner and loser classes because of this failure. Thus, the idea of “class uniqueness” sounds good, but only if your class is one of Blizz’s design winners.

Similarly, he did not address the idea of “utility” balance — that is, some group utilities are way more valuable and widely useful than others. A combat rez, for example, is probably always useful, whereas something like a hunter Tranq shot is highly specialized. Not all “unique” abilities are created equal, and this again leads to winner and loser classes. Will Blizz realize this and develop a system to minimize it? I doubt it.

Gear. This is where there was some good news, on several fronts. It was apparent that Hazzikostas fully understands the mess Blizz gave us with Legion gear. He said no one should have to sim gear before they can determine if it is an upgrade for them, and he also said they had gone too far with secondary stat importance in Legion. He did not promise that all gear with higher ilevel will be an upgrade every time, but he did say most of the time it will be, and he also said the calculus of determining the worth of gear will be considerably easier. We will see, but to me it sounded positive.

Loot. Somewhat related to gear is the question of loot in group situations. It sounds like the only option in BfA will be personal loot. Some guilds will not like this, but the change has been coming for some time. I know with my own guild, at the start of Legion we tended to prefer a system of Master Looter with rolls, along with a very light determination of who could roll on a piece. Very shortly, however, we saw that Personal Loot dropped significantly more gear (a design by Blizz for Legion), and we switched to that and have not gone back.

Hazzikostas came right out and said the BfA move to all Personal Loot is being made mainly to reign in the top guilds, the ones who routinely game the world-first Mythic competitions by using group loot runs to overgear their main raiders before they even start Mythic runs. This practice has meant Blizz has to compensate for the idea that the professional guilds will be overgeared for Mythic raids at the start, thus they need to make the raid difficulty with that in mind. This has a cascading effect, because it means the raid bosses — particularly the end ones — end up being overtuned for everyone else.

Anyway, it looks like Group Loot will be a thing of the past come BfA. What Hazzikostas did not address, but what I would like to have heard him on, is whether there will be some adjustments to the more annoying parts of Personal Loot. For example, a user-friendly interface for sharing loot. Something like a pop-up loot roll window similar to what we now see in dungeons, except in this case it starts with the person who got the loot selecting if they want to offer it up and checking a simple yes/no. If they do offer it up, then a loot roll window automatically pops up for all players eligible for the loot, maybe a need/greed kind of thing to also allow for people to roll on it for transmog.

Another Personal Loot improvement might be a refinement of what loot is shareable and what is not. There is a lot of loot that may technically be an upgrade for a player but in truth it is useless to them, and currently they cannot offer it up for trade.

Talents. Lots of discussion here, but the one thing that gave me cause for optimism was the statement that the idea of selecting either the AoE or the Single Target talent in a tier just feels bad, and in fact it doesn’t make anyone actually choose, rather it just makes them burn a tome to adjust for each boss fight. Hallelujah.

The other interesting thing about talents in BfA is confirmation that Blizz will use them as a sort of testing ground for baseline abilities. That is, if one talent for a class is always selected by most everyone, then that begins to look like something that should become a baseline ability, and Blizz may change it to that in a patch. We kind of suspected this is what they were doing in the latter parts of Legion, but now we know that is indeed the case.

Mission tables. This was probably the most disingenuous part of the Q&A. Hazzikostas blathered on about how they will not serve as time gates in BfA, that they are more for auxiliary game play, they add a nice dimension to the game, they fit with the BfA story line, blah blah blah. What he did not admit was the obvious — that it is a mini-game within WoW that works well with the mobile app, and if they get rid of it then they might as well trash the app, too. And of course, every time a player logs in on the mobile app it counts towards MAU for the game.

Mythic+. Without saying so outright, it was pretty clear that Blizz sees this part of the game as increasingly important going forward. Hazzikostas was at some pains to explain that raiding is still important, but it was obvious that Blizz is looking to Mythic+ as the main end game group activity at some point. Just my opinion, of course, but I would have liked to hear a more robust defense of raiding and I did not.

Professions. There will be some changes for the better here, I think. The change to having professions grouped into expansion-specific ones is a good move. Also good was the comment that crafted items need to be more relevant throughout an expansion, not just at the beginning. Last, on a less optimistic note, I am not really a fan of the recipe-leveling mechanic introduced in Legion, but it sounded like we are stuck with that for BfA.

Alts. Sounds like what we have now in Legion will be what we have in BfA in terms of alt-friendly or alt-hostile (whichever side you come down on). There will be some concessions to alts in terms of grindiness — like we have now for AP catch-up — but Hazzikostas is digging his heels in on his personal conviction that the only reason to have alts is to play them as you would a mini-main. Playing them to farm items for a main is strictly frowned upon and Blizz is doing everything they can to make that as hard as possible for you.

Guilds. The introduction of “Communities” is interesting to me, and honestly I do not know if it will spell the virtual end of guilds or not. Likely I will be writing a lot more about this as we learn more of the specifics. Of note, Hazzikostas did not indicate there would be any new perks to guild membership, only that guilds would have “all the same things as Communities”, plus a guild bank. This is one that bears watching.

Anyway, those are what I saw as the highlights of the Q&A yesterday. I did think it was one of the more informative ones lately. If you find yourself with some free time it could be worth an hour to watch.

Speaking of free time, it is time to start a weekend. See you on the other side.

New leveling process — nope

On Friday I finally got my void elf mage leveled. It took me what seemed like forever but in reality was about /played 4 days. Yes, I know, that is pretty slow. Towards the end I just gave up on efficient leveling and began a sort of grim grinding, doing a few things like some class hall quest lines available prior to 110, going out of my way to gather herbs and run down a couple of profession quests, etc. I do like that I am not constrained to certain zones at certain levels, but in my opinion that perk is not worth the extra pain the new system inflicts.

All along, I said I would reserve final judgement on the new leveling process until I was finished. Well, now I have finished and here is my judgement:

It stinks.

If it had been the first or second or even fifth time I was doing it, I probably would have enjoyed it more. But by now in my WoW career I have taken something like 30 characters through the process — at least through about level 80 or 90 — and trust me there is nothing interesting or immersive or nostalgic left for me. When I want to create a new character, I am interested in exploring the potential for end game content with that character, not in plowing through zones and quest lines I have done too many times before.

Even worse, Legion has brought us a kind of “end game leveling” process the likes of which we have not seen before. That is, even when you reach 110 with a character, there are a number of leveling processes you must go through before you can get to any semblance of end game play. There is the AP chase to unlock relic slots on your artifact weapon, the gear chase to unlock various LFR and dungeon tiers, the class hall quest lines to get followers and possibly the class mount if you want it, not to mention the various hoops you must jump through to unlock certain areas of world quests on Broken Shore and Argus. You even have to unlock Suramar and do a certain number of quest lines there in order to pursue other parts of the 110 leveling process. It is true that some of these requirements have been made shorter with recent patches, but the fact is, you still have to do them if you want a functioning 110 character. Reaching end game level no longer, by itself, permits end game play.

Even if you spring the $$$ to buy a character boost now, you still have to go through the entire end game leveling process. Boosting to 110 no longer means you have a functioning character for end game play, it just means you now have the privilege of grinding away for a few weeks to get to that stage.

Maybe if I had selected a different class for leveling I would have completed the process more quickly. A monk, for example, gets the additional XP boost, or a hunter generally can take on more mobs at once. My arcane mage was squishy and a mana hog to boot, so even though I did not die often I still had to take extra precautions and recovery time with nearly every encounter. It just takes longer. Still, the process should not be that dependent on class and spec selection. (I can’t even imagine leveling a healer or a tank in those roles with the new process. It would seem to be almost a requirement to level them in a damage spec and only switch to the desired healer or tank for group activities. That is sad, I think — I remember back in MoP my delight in leveling a mistweaver monk as a mistweaver and having no trouble whatsoever doing so. I think those days might be gone.)

There are players, of course, who welcome the new leveling process. I have no idea what fraction of the WoW community they represent, but I do know they tend to be extremely vocal and — let’s be honest — at times trolling and bullying. Not all of them, but enough that they paint the whole group with that brush. They have now gotten their way, and they did not have to wait for the Classic Servers to do so. Yay for them.

But there is another group — less vocal but I suspect larger than the purist group — who feel as I do: we are over the whole leveling-as-immersion thing, and when we roll a new character we just want to get to the end game as fast as possible. I think we are a large enough group that Blizz should pay some attention to us. They will not, of course, but here is what I would like to see:

  • Buff the heirloom gear to basically award bonus XP that would restore the old leveling times. Anyone who does not want to level quickly does not have to use heirloom gear. Simple.
  • Restore full profession leveling to characters who level to 60 and then use a boost.
  • Make it so that if you have all world quest areas on Broken Shore and Argus unlocked on one character, they automatically become unlocked on all characters on that account.
  • Similarly, make exalted rep account wide. Legion makes rep a pretty big thing in terms of gating for end game activities, professions, and the like, and it becomes less and less fun to pursue the more alts you have. If the purists object, create a coin or something that costs a fairly large sum of gold to buy, that gives account wide exalted rep if you already have it on one character. Call it a Publicity Coin or Advertising Blitz, and say it means you have hired a publicist who has spread the fame of you and your “family” far and wide. How cool would that be?
  • Spread artifact weapon level to all specs within your class, once you have reached, say, Level 75 on one artifact. It would not have to go any further than that — if you have one spec you want to keep grinding on and you get it beyond 75, fine, it would not be necessary to keep pace on all the other specs for that additional artifact level.

Changes like the above would not cause me to play the game less. On the contrary, they would probably make me play more, on more alts, because I would be able to do end game activities I really enjoy, rather than never ending grinds just to get to that point. As it is, I rarely log in on my lesser-developed 110 alts, because I just do not want to face the post-110 leveling grind necessary to get them to the fun part of the game. In Mists of Pandaria, I loved playing most of my alts nearly every day, because they were to the point where they could all do fun things on Timeless Isle — I could get loot and coins and such and also really concentrate on becoming more proficient on each alt. I did not feel as if I had to run certain quest lines or be forced to participate in dungeons I had to queue for, or jump through endless hoops to be productive in their professions, or have to run certain dailies just to get an adequate weapon. I could just — well — enjoy the game. This is a philosophy Blizz seems to have lost.

So, yeah, having taken an alt through the new leveling process (starting at level 20), I can now say categorically, I am not a fan of the change. Once again, it feels like Blizz is forcing me into an “approved” play style, that they are funneling me into their corporate-defined Fun™. Moreover, with Legion they have added an entire sub-leveling requirement on characters at level 110 — one that takes nearly as long to complete as the initial process.

I say again, the new process stinks. Just my 2 copper.

One of those nights

Last night our raid team made a Three Stooges comedy look like a PBS documentary in comparison. We — and I include myself in that — stunk. It was just a really bad night, one of those nights most guilds have from time to time, but it was tortuous.

Ever since we completed our heroic progression, we have routinely been clearing Antorus in something a little over two hours on our regular Tuesday raid nights. We know the fights, we all know our jobs for each one, and we have all gotten some decent gear which also helps. But not last night. We probably should have just called it when we carelessly wiped on the first boss, Garothi. Garothi! Just an aberration, we said, we were a bit short on healers, we said, a couple of our regular players were not there yet, we said. Pffft, no worries. Similarly, we overlooked problems with the next few bosses — sure, execution was a little rough, but hey we killed them so no harm no foul.

Then we got to Varimathras and wiped repeatedly. Varimathras, the Patchwerk boss of Legion! To be fair, a large part of the problem was Blizz’s extremely piss-poor raid design, in which Coven is visible (and at time inadvertently targetable) through the hole in the ceiling. In the past, we have had a little problem with this, but it has not usually been a big deal. But last night several times a wayward Sidewinder shot from  one of our MM hunters went into heat seeking mode, targeted one of the Coven, and then transported the hunter up into the Coven area, causing a cascading set of damage that wiped the raid. Individually, the glitch was kind of funny, but when it happened repeatedly it just compounded our already high level of frustration.

Design stupidity aside, though, even when Coven did not gang up on us, we were bad at the mechanics. After many frustrating wipes, we finally gave up and decided to just go to Aggramar and Argus and be done with the torture.

HAHAHAHAHA! Aggramar, too, was a comedy of errors for us. Our dps was down, small adds kept getting their cc broken out of turn, people died to fire and other easy mechanics…. the list goes on. Finally our usual raid leader got home from work and logged in, and we killed the boss by the hair of our chinny chin chins. Argus was not as horrible, and we did one shot him, though it was not our most elegant performance. A couple of people wanted to go back and get Varimathras, but as soon as Argus was down people bailed as fast as they could. (I was one of them, even though Varimathras is one of the very few bosses that have loot useful to me. I, along with most others, had had enough.)

I don’t have an explanation for why we were so bad last night. It is true we were missing a couple of our usual top damage dealers, but most of our problems did not stem from lower dps. The glitch with Varimathras and Coven was bad, but it was not the cause of our wiping every time on that boss. People — myself included — just were kind of sloppy, and it had an effect. I know for myself I am pretty much done with Legion in terms of being excited about anything, and I feel  burned out on Antorus. The only reason for me to run heroic at all any more is to help some of our guild non-raiders get their AotC. I am happy to do this, but curiously very few have expressed any interest in getting the achievement. The GM put out an announcement that anyone wanting to get it should contact an officer, and we would carry a couple of people each week. I don’t think more than one responded. I think quite a few players, raiders or not, are feeling expansion burnout.

One other thing happened last night that had an effect on me, and possibly on some others. We have a guildie who rarely logs on after maybe the first couple of months in a new expansion. (I will refer to this person as “they” so as not to categorize them, even though it will result in very tortured grammar, which I apologize for in advance.) This person is the Significant Other of another guildie, and they are not especially interested in the game but they play once in a while, apparently to please their SO. Interestingly, they seem to play only when the guild is doing something that will result in loot or a mount for them, and as soon as the guild has enabled them to get the thing, they disappear for weeks or months, uninterested in helping anyone else get the thing. (Also, whenever they do decide to play, their SO is always begging for loot for them — “Do you need that tier piece? [Name of SO] could really use it.”) To each their own, I suppose. They are not a bad player, and they are pleasant to chat with, but they clearly are out only for themself.

So last night when this person showed up for raid, I assumed they wanted to get the AotC achievement. Maybe they did, or maybe they just wanted the mount from Argus, but it turned out they also wanted something else. About halfway through the raid it came out that this person was streaming it. It seems they are trying to establish themself as a popular streamer, and apparently they thought streaming a raid would give them a good platform to add a few more followers. This may or may not be an effective strategy, but I — and a couple of others in the raid — felt duped and used.

It would just seem to be common courtesy to ask the raid before it started if it would be okay to stream it. I have not watched the stream, and I do not intend to, so I do not know what options the person has in place. I assume they do not have name plates visible, and possibly they have music playing that more or less keeps raider verbal comments from coming though clearly. I have no idea if raid chat is visible in the stream. I also do not know if the person streams under their character name, and I do not know if anyone watching would figure out which guild was performing so abominably. It does seem kind of low to stream a raid on a night when everything is going wrong.

Still, all other considerations aside, there is something very unsettling about someone using the raid for their own personal gain, about someone assuming they can just capitalize on my game play for their own advancement. I don’t know if I would have played differently or made different comments if I had known up front about the streaming, but it is the principle. And now that I think about it, I am not sure I would have participated in the raid at all had I known about the streaming in advance. I am not a public person, I have spent most of my life actively avoiding publicity of any kind. That aversion to being in the public eye transfers even to virtual avatars, and I am decidedly not comfortable with someone putting my game play out for public comment regardless of how many or few followers they may have.

Like I said, one of those nights. I am glad it is finally in the rear view mirror.

SEC Form 10-K – more interesting than you think

A few days ago, Activision Blizzard made public its Securities and Exchange financial filing (Form 10-K). This is an annual requirement for publicly traded companies, and it essentially lays out the general financial health of the organization as well as its business plan and strategy. It is of interest because it contains quite a bit more information about the company than does the annual financial report. Think of it as a company statement that lays out who they are, what they do, how they make it work, and what keeps them up at night.

Don’t look at me like that and roll your eyes, there are some interesting nuggets to be gleaned from it if you are persistent in plowing through the accounting jargon. Luckily for you, I did the plowing so you don’t have to. As you go through this, it can be helpful to remember that Activision Blizzard (ATVI) is really three companies: Activision, Blizzard, and King.

ATVI sees their success as dependent on continuous player participation. For some intellectual properties, such as World of Warcraft, this is a real challenge because the nature of MMOs has historically been cyclical. Thus, there is a huge emphasis from Corporate for WoW to stretch out player engagement over the life of an expansion, to lessen the peaks and valleys of participation that have been more or less inevitable with the WoW design.

We design our games, as well as related media, to provide a depth of content that keeps consumers engaged for a long period of time following a game’s release, delivering more value to our players and additional growth opportunities for our franchises.

Though I did not quote any of it, the 10-K includes a rather lengthy discussion of Monthly Active Users and its role in assessing the popularity (and thus profitability) of a game. In simplified form, if I log on to WoW for 4 hours Monday and 20 minutes on Tuesday, that counts as 2 MAU. Thus, the challenge to WoW developers and executives is to design the game to strongly encourage its players to log on as many times as possible during the month. Length of game play time is less important than number of times played. 

Seen in that light, lots of recent WoW designs start to come into focus: gated content (Suramar, Broken Shore, class hall lines, invasion scenarios, emissary quests), never-ending weapon enhancement, and the extreme use of RNG for all aspects of the game (legendaries, profession recipes, mounts and pets, relics) are just three of the examples that come to mind immediately.

It’s all about enticing you to log in to WoW as many days a month as possible.

Corporate strongly believes that future revenues will depend in large part on customer purchases peripheral to the games themselves.

In addition to purchasing full games or subscriptions, players can invest in certain of our games and franchises by purchasing incremental “in-game” content (including larger downloadable content or smaller content, via microtransactions). These digital revenue streams tend to be recurring and have relatively higher profit margins. Further, if executed properly, additional player investment can increase engagement as it provides more frequent and incremental content for our players. In addition, we believe there is an opportunity for advertising within certain of our franchises, as well as opportunities to drive new forms of player investment through esports, film and television, and consumer products. We are in the early stages of developing these new revenue streams.

I do not know for sure how this Corporate goal will affect WoW, although my suspicion is that it will be less affected than some other ATVI properties. Still, we can see the Mythic+ competitions (and almost certainly the Islands scenarios in BfA) as a reflection of the push to monetize ATVI game peripherals. The fact that Corporate indicates they are in the “early stages of developing these new revenue streams” gives me pause, because I see a strong push from above for WoW to produce more revenue than just game subscriptions. This usually translates into game developers feeling pressure to be “creative”. Think about the mostly-failed initiatives to incorporate Twitter and Facebook into the game — were those attempts to monetize the game through indirect advertising? I don’t know, but I do get an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades.

The two Corporate goals of eliminating the cyclical nature of some games and extending monetization opportunities are connected:

Providing additional opportunities for player investment outside of full-game purchases has allowed us to shift from our historical seasonality to a more consistently recurring and year-round revenue model. In addition, if executed properly, it allows us to increase player engagement as it provides more frequent and incremental content for our players.

Blizzard is now responsible for ATVI’s entire venture into esports. I did not realize this until I read the 10-K. I am sure there was an excellent reason to place MLG under an existing company structure rather than leave it as a standalone entity within ATVI. But it makes me wonder how significant the move will be in terms of Blizzard’s resource allocation. Will it have an effect on the number of resources they can devote to WoW support and development? No clue, but it may be something to keep an eye on.

As part of the continued implementation of our esports strategy, we instituted changes to our internal organization and reporting structure such that the Major League Gaming (“MLG”) business now operates as a division of Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. (“Blizzard”). As such, commencing with the second quarter of 2017, MLG, which was previously a separate operating segment, is now a component of the Blizzard operating segment. MLG is responsible for the operations of the Overwatch League™, along with other esports events, and will also continue to serve as a multi-platform network for other Activision Blizzard esports content.

WoW remains one of the top ATVI franchises, even if it has lost some popularity in the last couple of years. Also, if the WoW devs come up with another failed expansion (such as WoD), Corporate understands the loss could be significant. There is thus a lot of pressure on Blizzard to make Battle for Azeroth succeed. We can expect them to tout its success, even if it turns out to be a dog. More importantly, the realization that BfA must succeed could shape Blizz’s responses to any widespread legitimate player concerns about it. (Either ignore them and continue to shout about how great it is, or alternatively pay great heed to them in order to stave off “WoD syndrome”.)

For the years ended December 31, 2017 and 2016, our top four franchises—Call of Duty, Candy Crush, World of Warcraft, and Overwatch—collectively accounted for 66% and 69% of our net revenues, respectively. For the year ended December 31, 2015, our top four franchises—Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Destiny, and Hearthstone—collectively accounted for 75% of our net revenues.

We expect that a relatively limited number of popular franchises will continue to produce a disproportionately high percentage of our revenues and profits. Due to this dependence on a limited number of franchises, the failure to achieve anticipated results by one or more products based on these franchises could negatively impact our business.

Best job title in ATVI:

Brian Stolz became our Chief People Officer in May 2016.

How big is ATVI?

At December 31, 2017, we had approximately 9,800 total full-time and part-time employees.

Last, one of the major risks ATVI sees in their business model is that players may not like their games:

In order to remain competitive, we must continuously develop new products or enhancements to our existing products. These products or enhancements may not be well-received by consumers, even if well-reviewed and of high quality.

Additionally, the amount of lead time and cost involved in the development of high-quality products is increasing, and the longer the lead time involved in developing a product and the greater the allocation of financial resources to such product, the more critical it is that we accurately predict consumer demand for such product. If our future products do not achieve expected consumer acceptance or generate sufficient revenues upon introduction, we may not be able to recover the substantial up-front development and marketing costs associated with those products.

If any of these issues occur, consumers may stop playing the game and may be less likely to return to the game as often in the future, which may negatively impact our business.

Further, delays in product releases or disruptions following the commercial release of one or more new products could negatively impact our business on our revenues and reputation and could cause our results of operations to be materially different from expectations. If we fail to release our products in a timely manner, or if we are unable to continue to extend the life of existing games by adding features and functionality that will encourage continued engagement with the game, our business may be negatively impacted.

So, do WoW player actions such as unsubbing or even just failing to log on as often matter? Yes, they do, though of course only on the wholesale level — something on the scale of WoD defections will get the attention of Corporate, not one individual  rage quit.

What measures they might take to remedy a situation where players hate a new expansion is unclear. In response to WoD outcries, Blizz backed off of the no-flying-ever-again decision, they rather profusely apologized for their miscalculations about the expansion, and they typically overcorrected in Legion. But if other Blizz properties significantly overtake WoW in revenue production, it is entirely possible Corporate could see the franchise as no longer worth the resource expenditure, so in that event a catastrophic failure could spell the end of the game.

There was a ton of other absorbing information in the SEC filing, but I have rambled on way too long already, so I will call it quits. My point is that these dry forms actually give us great insight into design decisions and possible future directions for ATVI in the big picture and for WoW in the smaller one.

If you have managed to read this far, congratulations, and if you want to further torture yourself and read the original Form 10-K, you can do so on the ATVI web site here.

Time to normalize mythic dungeons

Last night I knocked out my weekly quest — this week is 4 mythics — with a guild group. It took us almost no time, and we did not even bother to run with a healer which caused no problems since we are so overgeared for regular mythic instances at this point. But the experience got me to thinking.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at the looking for group listings for regular mythics, and I was dumbstruck at the ridiculous requirements many of the groups were imposing. Mind you, they were looking to get groups together to do the same trivial run I had just done with my guild. Several were requiring an ilevel of 950 or even higher (saw one at 962 and one at 975). A couple even stated a current tier AotC requirement. One idiot was looking for dps “> 2 million or immediate kick”. And a surprising number required a threshold raider.io rating even though they were forming a group for regular mythic dungeons, not mythic+ runs.


Get a grip, people.

Yeah, okay, I understand the desire to get only the best players in your group, but sheesh, here are a couple of reminders:

  • It’s entry level mythic instances.
  • Almost certainly many of the elite types you are fantasizing about are not going to be doing a weekly mythic run anyway (there is probably no gear in the quest box they need any more).
  • The elite types you want — if they are doing a weekly run — probably already did it with guildies or friends.
  • And not for nothin’ but do you remember when you were minimally geared and how hard it was for you to find a group?

In general, I like the LFG idea. I think the interface could use some improvements like sorting by time posted, by role requested, by pvp or pve servers, and so forth, but I like the idea of having a place besides chat to get pickup groups together for specific quests or instances or custom whatever. I use it a lot for world bosses, and sometimes also for world quests or even regular quests if I am running them on a fairly squishy alt or a healer. It works, even if it is pretty clunky.

By design, it has limitations not present in automated group assemblers like LFR or the dungeon finder. It is intended as a help for group leaders looking to assemble tailored groups for specific goals. I get that. And when you get actual players involved in picking their groups you are bound to get a lot of asshats. So I guess the problem I have is not with the interface so much as with the proliferation of asshats, which is something Blizz has little control over.

What they do have some control over, however, is which activities go into the automated group assembly mechanic (the dungeon finder) and which ones go into the asshat group assembly mechanic (LFG). I think it is high time that regular mythic instances go into the dungeon finder, right there along with regular and heroic dungeons.

When Blizz introduced mythic dungeons in WoD, they were clearly end game activities, ones that required a certain amount of teamwork to defeat mechanics, the kind of thing you probably did not want to take a chance on a random stranger for. Of course, as WoD wore on, people tended to outgear even the mythic dungeons, and mechanics became less of an issue. In Legion, Blizz continued the dungeon structure set up in WoD, but they added Mythic+ with the introduction of keystones. I argue that Mythic+ is in fact a separate dungeon tier, making regular mythics no longer the top tier of instances. It seems no different than the regular and heroic tiers, just maybe requiring a slightly higher gear level to qualify for, in the same way that various LFR tiers require certain gear levels.

Moreover, Legion requires the running of some mythic instances for other game activities — class hall quest lines and some profession progression. To my mind, this places them solidly in the “for the masses” category and removes them from the “for the top players” category. This is what the dungeon finder is for. Players who do not belong to guilds, or who belong to guilds that are not very active, are at a significant disadvantage for running regular mythic dungeons. They must go though the LFG torment of applying for group after group after group only to likely be turned down again and again. They may be perfectly qualified, but some asshat group leader is looking for that 980 level Mythic raider to join his piddly little Maw regular mythic.

Worse, some players will be turned down again and again, no matter their qualifications, because they do not have the “approved” class and spec. While it has not happened often to me, a couple of weeks ago I was looking to for a specific mythic dungeon group to knock out a quest I had. I applied for a group that seemed to have a ridiculously high gear level requirement, but I did meet it, along with the equally-stupid AotC requirement. I applied and was rejected, even though that meant they still continued to look for dps. When I whispered the group leader, he said I was “not what they were looking for”, and when I asked what they were indeed looking for, all I got was “something else” as a reply. It seems the real answer was, they did not want a BM hunter but were apparently too embarrassed to add to their group listing, “No BM hunters need apply”.

Blizz, it’s time to recognize regular mythic dungeons are no longer the top of the end game food chain — that Mythic+ long ago supplanted them in that role — and relegate them to dungeon finder status. It really would be a huge quality of life improvement for players, if that is still a consideration for you. 

Through the glass darkly

As I have for the past couple of weeks, I spent most of my game time this weekend continuing to chug away at leveling my Void Elf arcane mage. I thought maybe as I got more into the leveling mindset, I might come to appreciate the finer points of Blizz’s throwback leveling mechanics.

Nope. I find it needlessly tedious and stupidly boring. Blizz has changed or varied some of the quest lines, it is true, so those are of very mild interest when I encounter them, but I am finding a lot of quest lines designed to force you to spend inordinate amounts of time simply shuttling back and forth:

  • Get a quest.
  • Go far away and do the quest.
  • Go back to turn it in.
  • Get newly available quest from same quest giver.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat.
  • zzzzzzzzzzzz…….. hmmm, what did I do with my toenail clipper?

I would have abandoned this whole project days ago if it were not for the fact I have all the Pathfinder achieves and thus can at least fly rather than gallop about. It seems clear that the “new” leveling protocol is all about stretching out the process as much as possible. Blizz can bray all they want about “restoring the experience”, but trust me, there is nothing interesting about commuting back and forth along the same path multiple times just to turn in and get new quests. (I am actually waiting for the change that will prevent us from skipping cutscenes, it seems almost inevitable it will happen. 🤨) Still, I suppose I am helping to contribute to Ion’s annual bonus by cranking out some MAU numbers for him, so at least that’s something.

Anyway, this post is not a rant about the ridiculous leveling changes (that will come later). It is about looking back and seeing expansions with the benefit of perspective.

I started playing WoW sometime around the very tail end of Burning Crusade. (I think I must have been about level 50 or 60 on my then-main hunter when Wrath of the Lich King went live.) One of the positive things about leveling my Void Elf is that it has given me a kind of retrospective on my history in the game. As I have gone through zones from each expansion, I am reminded of my first time through them years ago, and it is interesting that the things I see about them are not necessarily the things I would come up with if asked to list the highlights (or lowlights) of each expansion.

For example, if asked about Wrath, I think I would have remembered only two things. One, it was where I began my years-long search for Skoll and Arcturis. And two, it was where I finally found a guild I fit with and began regularly running instances and raids. That, and the Amberseed poop quest in Grizzly Hills.

What I would not have remembered, but which came back to me like a load of fresh Amberseed material falling on my head, was how much I detested nearly every quest in Zul’drak. Especially the seemingly-endless quest line where you put on that Ensorceled Choker disguise (you know, the one that keeps falling off exactly when you are surrounded by mobs that will kill a squishy mage in an instant) and run around playing with the Scourge. I hated it the first time I did it, and I hated it this time, too. If I had remembered how awful it was I would not have selected that zone to level in this time, but I only remembered about halfway through. I gritted my teeth and did most of it, but finally abandoned it prior to completion. It was just too long and annoying.

The main things I remember about Cataclysm are the zones — I hated the undersea one and loved Uldum. I spent hours in Uldum every week — even after leveling — gathering herbs and ore, and fishing. It was some of the most laid back, relaxing time I have ever spent in the game. I was having quite a bit of stress in my own life at the time, and putting on some music and flying my gathering routes was exactly what I needed to decompress.

I skipped all of the Cata zones leveling my Void Elf, opting instead for staying in Northrend until level 80, then going directly to Pandaria. I considered moving to Uldum, but I think I was loathe to overwrite what I want to keep as a sort of hazy pleasant memory.

The surprise revelation I got as I was leveling through Pandaria and now Draenor is this: I love the idea of a personal homestead in the game. When I got to Valley of the Four Winds, I couldn’t wait to get my cozy little Sunsong Ranch home. It was stupid, as I did not need to do any of the Tiller stuff for leveling purposes, but it was weirdly important to me to get a little place of my own.

Similarly, when I got to Draenor, I made sure to do the quest line to set up my Level 2 garrison. I did this mainly to be able to get the vendor for the XP potions, but I was astounded at the happiness that ran over me when I first walked into the gates of my Level 2 garrison. Yeah, I complained as bitterly as everyone else during WoD about the garrison burden, and if asked, I would have never listed garrisons as a plus for WoD. But there is no denying how good it felt to see this familiar scene of safety and sanctuary and know it was my own place. If I do anything with my Void Elf once she is leveled to 110, it will probably be to go back to Draenor and build up my garrison.

I am certain I will never have the same “coming home” feeling about class halls once Legion is finally history. I still do not understand why Blizz is so adamant about any form of player housing. They came so close with garrisons, but in typical fashion completely ruined the experience by ramming them down our throats. The unfortunate thing is, they now hold this venture up as an example for why player housing would be a bad thing — “See, we tried a prototype of it in WoD and you all complained bitterly and loudly about it! So no more of that, we promise you!”

Anyway, the best thing so far about leveling my Void Elf is that I am getting a renewed perspective on my history in the game, one that is frequently a surprise to me. Memory is often like looking through the wrong end of very dusty binoculars. We see tiny imperfect images and have a tendency to interpret them imperfectly, too.  And while we can never really go back, sometimes we get a brief chance to turn the binoculars right way round, and we can see the past a bit more clearly, and we can apply a proper perspective.


Over the weekend, as I was cooking for, cleaning for, picking up after, and entertaining relatives, out of the blue I had one of those forehead-slapping moments. For months now — maybe even a couple of years — I have been baffled by Blizz’s apparent business model shift from a game accessible to nearly everyone to one that:

  • Is increasingly complex, to the point that it is almost impossible for new players to navigate without accessing third-party explanatory sites
  • Is moving to funnel all game play into a structured end game model
  • Is designed to require ever more game play hours each week in order to reach and maintain end game level
  • Often implements “fixes” that serve to penalize casual players but are in response to elite player exploits or perceived exploits (example: the rules for loot trading in raids)
  • Gives early testing access only to elite players or “image shapers”, and structures entire expansions based on their feedback

WoW made its reputation and early MMO dominance by being a game tens of millions could play and find their own leisure niche in. Anyone with a computer could subscribe and go about finding their happy place picking herbs or exploring or being fierce in the face of marauding gnolls or hanging out with friends in chat or venturing into raids and instances with their guild or a pickup group. And for the most part, players could pursue their pleasure on whatever schedule they wanted — there were weekend warriors, some who played an hour or two every couple of nights, some who played more intensely, some who played only a couple of days every few weeks.

The point is, these players were not penalized for whatever play schedule they adhered to. They could structure their game time to meet their personal goals. Starting as early as Mists, Blizz began to gate significant content behind time requirements. For example, to get certain profession recipes or gear, there were  fairly stringent rep gates, and you could only gain faction rep according to a rationed weekly and daily schedule. It is that last part that in my mind started the slide into “enforced game time”. Suddenly the weekend player — even if they were only interested in profession crafting and not end game raiding, for example — was at a significant disadvantage. No matter how many hours they might have to play on a weekend, they could not “catch up” with the gated dailies that gave them access to their game goals.

In WoD, we saw the garrison mechanism used as a similar hammer. Players had to fully develop their garrisons if they wanted to see the final patch zone (in spite of Blizz’s early fabrication that garrisons would be “completely voluntary”) and garrison development was limited by a resource that could only be earned in measured amounts, doled out according to weekly and daily activity rations. Garrison development was even further impacted by completion of time-bounded quests in the mini game of champions and ships.

Legion, of course, has seen the exponential growth of game mechanisms designed to penalize the non-regular player. I won’t detail them here, as I have written extensively about them for the past year, but they include the chase for AP, the legendary RNG system that rewards frequent play and penalizes infrequent, the RNG aspect of profession learning, and so forth.

Yeah I know, Get to the point, Fi! So here was my forehead-slapping revelation:

Blizz considers the future of the game to be wholly contingent on esports, not on mass appeal. 

Maybe some of you have taken this as a given and are not blown away by it as I was, but that realization finally put into context for me nearly all of the company’s heretofore-inexplicable expansion policies.

Blizz considers the future of the game — if it has a future — to be masses of people watching the elite play it, not so much playing it themselves. Oh sure, they can dabble in it if they’ve a mind to, but doing so will be akin to a weekend touch football game if you love the game of football — the real players get big bucks and you pay big bucks to watch them playing in the NFL.

This explains a lot.

For one thing, the increasing complexity. Professional athletes spend hours understanding and maximizing the nuances of their sport. They are fascinated by the small details of it, and they pride themselves on being able to shape those details to enhance their performance. Is it possible to not pay attention to the myriad of details and still play? Sure, but of course not at the pro level.

In pro sports, it is fairly important to have a dedicated fan base that understands the game from a player level, that knows they themselves do not have the wherewithal to compete at the top, nevertheless they are rabidly interested in how the pros can perform so perfectly. It will be the same with esports.

In WoW, if the goal is merely to keep the current loyal player base, it is not especially important to make the game accessible to masses of brand new players. Sure, some will be brought in by veterans, but in general it is not a high priority to simplify the game or to make its user interfaces more friendly or to gently lead players through quest lines, because most of the current player base already understands these processes.

The shift from subscription numbers as a metric of game success to Monthly Active Users is simply a way to measure how dedicated the fan player base is. Moreover, Blizz wants this loyal player base to stay engaged. This explains the catering to “vanilla” players, the emphasis on “how it used to be in the old days of leveling”.

The strategic goal of esports as game direction also explains the introduction of fast mini-competitions within the game, things like Mythic+ dungeons and Islands in BfA. Players can try these for themselves (have a quick touch football game at the park on Saturday), but the real Blizz emphasis will be on spectator versions of them carried out by the pros.

If you are trying to build an esports fan base to cheer for pro teams engaging in end game activities, then another thing you have to do is ensure every player who reaches level is funneled into those pro-friendly end game activities. Can’t have a whole group of leveled players who care nothing about the core end game activities, who have interest and experience only in crafting or gathering or whatever. So the answer is to force even these players into at least a passing familiarity with dungeons and raids and gearing up and soon Island scenarios.

Last, if you believe the future of the game involves people watching the pros play it, then of course you structure it to favor that aspect. This explains Blizz’s catering to the less than 1% of elite players and world-first guilds. It explains why they do not for the most part allow casual players to be early shapers of a new expansion. It even somewhat explains why they seem to abandon some classes and specs every expansion — if the pro players consider the spec not worthy of serious play, then there is no need to focus any more resources on it. The game is no longer being designed for casual players, except insofar as to give them a taste of what real pro play involves. 

So, yeah, I know — I have veered rather deeply into tinfoil hat territory here. And yes, it may be time for my meds. But think about it and apply Occam’s Razor or lex parsimoniae or any of the standard problem-solving paradigms.

If it is a far-fetched explanation, it is at least a simple one requiring few assumptions.